Boundaries! Why can setting limits be so difficult and what might I gain by learning how? – Barb Pattison, RCC

What are boundaries? We all know the word “boundaries”, but what does it mean to actually set a boundary and why is it important? To be honest, the word “boundaries” is not something I thought about much until I set foot into the world of counselling. As a therapist I often work with individuals who are struggling with setting limits. They aren’t sure what it means, they may feel selfish for setting a boundary or they really just don’t know where to begin.

So what are personal boundaries?
Personal boundaries are our guidelines, our limits, that we create to keep us safe and feeling secure. Boundaries can define our physical limits (personal space) or our psychological limits (the right to say no!). Boundaries are invisible, we can’t actually see them but we can certainly notice when our physical and psychological toes have been stepped on. It is where we end and another person begins. Good boundaries help us to grow personally and are key in a healthy loving relationship – romantic and/or friendships. Boundaries are meant to be firm yet flexible, they are constantly changing as people change, and setting them is a continuous growth process.

Sounds simple enough. So why do we let others overstep our boundaries?

• Setting boundaries, and learning to do so, involves placing a relationship at risk. We may be aware that we need to set a limit with a friend, make a request to do something different or state that something bothers us. Taking action can be difficult, but if we set a limit it may mean the other person doesn’t receive it well and thus the relationship itself is at risk of dissolving. So we may end up in a push-pull situation where we are uncomfortable or hurting because our boundary has been overstepped but we are too afraid to do anything about it.

• We may have learned that saying “No!” is rude or disrespectful. It may have been ingrained into us that we are to be polite and nice and setting boundaries is either rude or a selfish thing to do. Ask yourself what you have learned about the word “no” and what beliefs you may attach with that word.

• Some individuals may not believe that they have the right to set limits with others. Their self-worth may be low and if they don’t think too highly of themselves it could be more difficult to ask others to respect them. We all have come across people who let others walk all over them. And even if we can see they deserve to have their limits respected, they might not believe it themselves.

• There are times when there is a power difference in our relationships: for example, our boss, parents, grandparents, teacher, or coach. At times, in these types of relationships, the individual in the lower power position can be caught in a situation where their boundaries are more likely to be violated. And because of this difference in power the more vulnerable individual can have a much harder time setting the boundary. It could risk their job, their involvement on a team or unfair treatment by a teacher.

What do I gain out of setting boundaries?

There are many reasons why it is worthwhile for a person to learn to set boundaries. We learn they are to take care of ourselves, of our needs, and they are not to control another person. That is not the intention of boundary setting. We learn that we cannot simultaneously take care of another’s feelings and our own at the same time. This is not to say that during the process we are disrespectful or disregarding of another’s feelings, but rather that we are responsible for our feelings and other people are responsible for their own. We can be respectful of others feelings and still take care of our own. We learn to recognize the signs that let us know a boundary is needed. For example, if we are feeling frustrated, angry or complaining, this is a clue that lets us know that a boundary may need to be set. Be curious and ask yourself if how you are feeling is related to someone overstepping your limit. If so, then you know it’s time to take action. We also learn that people often respect our requests for boundaries and this can lead to a healthier relationship where self-respect and respect from others remains intact. A fun part to setting boundaries is we learn what we like and dislike.

How do I get started? What is helpful to know?

Whether setting boundaries is new for you, or you are refreshing your knowledge in this area, here are a few simple guidelines to help keep you on track.

• When we become aware that a boundary needs to be set make it clear what it is you are setting, do it briefly (it doesn’t need to be long and drawn out) and do so without anger. Most people probably don’t realize they are overstepping and once they are aware (and respected in the process) they may be quite happy to respect your request.

• Remember – people may test your limits, especially if they are used to trespassing on your limits. It’s therefore important before you set the boundary to make sure you really want to enforce this limit. It will help to give you the energy to stand up for yourself and your boundary.

• Follow through – actions and words must match. Don’t confuse things for others, keep it clear. If you are asking for a boundary to be respected then your behaviour must match accordingly.

As you venture into this area of setting boundaries keep in mind that support is helpful. With feedback available from a support person you can learn what are reasonable and normal limits to set. Learn to listen to your own inner guide which lets you know what feels right, what hurts, what is healthy and what is not. Setting boundaries is a constantly evolving process, thus it needs to remain open and flexible and cannot be rigidly fixed.

Adapted from: Beyond Codependency by Melody Beattie, Harper/Hazelden, 1989
Repeat After Me by Claudia Black, Mac Publishing, 1987